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How Weird Science Drives Our Most Important Innovations

by Gabrielle Stearns

In 1975, Wisconsin Senator William Proxmire issued a press release with his first batch of Golden Fleece awards. The awards were given to federally funded scientific research that he considered a waste of taxpayer dollars. The first award went to the National Science Foundation for a project that spent over $80,000 investigating why people fall in love. 168 awards were given out by Proxmire over a span of 13 years highlighting the weird, wacky, and debatably wasteful research the US government was funding.

Radiolab hosts Latif Nasser and Lulu Miller looked back at these awards and the legacy they created in a podcast episode on February 17, 2023. Proxmire’s somewhat cynical awards cast scrutiny on scientists. Important research that looked silly at first glance but had the potential to impact the lives of Americans was written off as wasteful, often resulting in a reduction of funding. 

Decades after Proxmire retired and stopped issuing awards, another congressman saw an opportunity to change this legacy. Tennessee Representative Jim Cooper announced the first Golden Goose Awards in 2012. These awards were also given to research that sounded ridiculous at first but highlighted the positive impacts the findings had on science and health. Cooper argued that Proxmire misunderstood the way science works. You have to investigate the subjects that seem absurd to discover new and innovative solutions that no one knew existed.

Nasser interviewed Baldomero “Toto” Marquez Olivera, one of the Golden Goose winners from 2022. His research is on the cone snail, a tiny mollusk that prays on larger animals by injecting them with enough venom to kill a human. Toto and his research partner Lourdes Cruz began studying the venom of these snails in the 1970s. Over the last several decades – with funding from several government agencies –  they isolated over 200 distinct components of the venom, some with properties useful to humans. Chiefly, the component that won them the Golden Goose Award was developed into a non-opioid painkiller.

This episode of Radiolab is a celebration of the creativity and innovation of scientists in the United States. It’s a reminder to lean into curiosity, keep an open mind, and embrace the weird, wacky, and wonderful parts of science.

Find this episode of Radiolab here.